After reading the Q&A Is the moon moving further away from Earth and closer to the Sun? Why? about the tides transferring energy to the Moon and pushing it from Earth, I have a question:

How is that energy actually being transferred to the Moon? The creation of tides requires energy, so I would expect that this should take energy from the Moon, slow it and cause it to eventually fall back to the Earth. Why isn't that happening?

Finally, if this is the general mechanism, would other moons that orbit around planets with a liquid surface and causing tides, be receding from their parent planets?

  • $\begingroup$ Note the recession only happens when the primary is spinning faster than the satellite. When the satellite is moving faster than the primary (like Phobos and Mars), then it spirals in, not out. $\endgroup$
    – BowlOfRed
    Jan 21, 2015 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ @РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬ: Um, "closer to the Sun"? It also gets further from the Sun, half the time... $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2015 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ "Finally, if this is the general mechanism, would other moons that orbit around planets with a liquid surface and causing tides, be receding from their parent planets?" Although implicitly covered by the answers, I thought I would add here that yes, if a moon has come to be a satellite of a planet where the orbit is not geostationary, then the same effect will occur to a varying degree. I suppose a particularly dense gas atmosphere might produce the same effect, though the arrangement for something relatively exotic like that to happen is probably unlikely. $\endgroup$
    – ouflak
    Jul 6, 2023 at 6:37

2 Answers 2


It's pretty simple, actually.

tidal bulging

The Moon creates tides. Due to tides, the water bulges out towards the Moon (and also on the opposite side).

But the Earth also rotates pretty fast (once a day), faster than the Moon orbits the Earth (once a month). There's friction between the rotating Earth, and the watery bulge created by tides. The rotation of the Earth "wants" to rotate the bulge faster.

In effect, the rotation of the Earth drags the tidal bulge forward - the bulge is always a bit ahead of the Moon. When the Moon is at meridian, the tide is already decreasing.

So there's a bit of extra watery mass on Earth, a little bit ahead of the Moon. This watery bulge interacts gravitationally with the Moon.

This has two effects:

  • it slows down the rotation of the Earth, gradually sucking energy from it (the Moon pulls the bulge, and therefore the Earth, "back")
  • that energy is dumped into the Moon's orbital motion, effectively "pulling" it forward

When you dump energy of motion into an orbiting body, it settles into a higher orbit - higher orbit means more energy. Therefore, the transfer of energy from Earth' spin to Moon's orbit gradually makes Moon's orbit larger and larger.

This only happens because the Earth is spinning faster than the Moon orbits it. If the Earth was tidally locked to the Moon (spinning exactly as fast as the Moon orbits it), then no transfer would happen. If the Earth was spinning slower than the Moon's orbit, then the transfer would be opposite (from Moon's orbital motion to Earth's spin).

Note: Counterintuitively, a satellite with more energy actually moves slower, but in a higher orbit. The extra energy goes into raising the orbit, not into making its speed faster. Why this happens exactly is a whole 'nother discussion.

  • $\begingroup$ Is there a tidal wave in the Earth's molten mantle too? $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Jan 20, 2015 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ The whole Earth, including the "solid" crust and its soft interior, experiences a tide due to the Moon; on a planetary scale there are no true solids. It's called Earth tide. The amplitude is on the order of dozens of centimeters. web.ics.purdue.edu/~ecalais/teaching/eas450/Gravity3.pdf $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2015 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ @user104372 Energy does not just exist in the form of kinetic energy. In this case, the total energy (kinetic plus potential) of a wider orbit is larger. This is really basic physics that you are arguing about. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Jul 31, 2016 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ Re It's pretty simple, actually. It's not that simple. The true picture is much more complex than is this simple picture. The tidal bulge as depicted in the image does not exist. If it did exist, high tide would occur shortly after lunar culmination (and then 12 hours and 25 minutes after that). This is very rarely observed. In fact, that tidal bulge cannot exist. To get the correct picture, one would have to integrate the effects of the oceans on the Moon over a long period of time (preferably 18 years or more). Our models aren't there yet. $\endgroup$ Aug 5, 2016 at 19:05

You have correctly identified that the tidal forces are transferring energy from the Earth to the Moon. This energy causes the Moon's orbit to get larger thus slowing it down.

It's a bit counter intuitive, but if you think about it the Earth spins a rate of 1 spin per day The Moon is orbiting the Earth with a period of approximately 27.3 days. If it were to speed up it's orbit would actually decrease bringing it closer to the Earth.

To answer your final point all other moons cause tides on their parent planets and are moving away from them, but the effects are much smaller due to the larger difference in sizes. The Earth/Moon system is unique in the Solar System as the ratio of the sizes of the bodies are relatively close to each other.

  • $\begingroup$ The other planet/moon systems do also have this property though. The moons slowly spin outwards. $\endgroup$
    – Rory Alsop
    Sep 30, 2013 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ I still don't get how speeding up the Moon would decrease its orbit, from what I remember, the faster the body moves, the more distant is the orbit... $\endgroup$ Sep 30, 2013 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ @ŁukaszLech That's a misconception, the square of the orbital period is equal to the cube of its average distance (Kepler's 3rd law), but as the size of the orbit only scales linearly with distance, the velocity scales as r^(-1/2), i.e. decreasing with distance. $\endgroup$
    – Guillochon
    Sep 30, 2013 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ Examples: At 150 miles up, orbital speed is 17000mph. At 22000 miles up it is only 7000mph. $\endgroup$
    – Rory Alsop
    Sep 30, 2013 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. But when the body is slowing, the centrifugal force reduces, therefore is no longer able to match gravity, and the body falls? This is what happens to low orbit satelites? $\endgroup$ Sep 30, 2013 at 20:55

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